This week’s Virtual Museum post focuses on an item in the museum’s collection which was discovered in nearby Castle Gardens. Beneath the surface of this scenic and historic park lie what remains of the original ‘Manor House’, a mansion constructed by Sir Fulke Conway. Completed in 1622, the grand E-shaped mansion was ‘a timber-framed house ‘of cadge-work’ at an elevated site at Lisnagarvey with a ‘bawn of brick’ and with a ‘fayre timber bridge’ across the Lagan beneath’. Sir Fulke did not live long enough to enjoy the house he built, dying in a fire there in 1624. The estate passed to Fulke’s younger brother, Edward, 1st Viscount Conway. In 1626 it was taken over by his son, Edward Conway, the 2nd Viscount. It is unknown if Sir Fulke’s mansion was completely destroyed by fire in 1624. In fact, it has been often been claimed that it was destroyed in the 1641 rebellion. However, there is little evidence of this. What is clear is that in the years after Fulke’s death significant additions were made.
The modifications were undertaken by successive Viscount Conways over the next decades, significantly changing the appearance of the original mansion. The creation of a walled garden, widening of terraces, and exterior set of steps and a gazebo were among the improvements made on the previous structure. The improved house lasted longer than the first, but ultimately suffered the same fate. This time destroyed by the accidental fire in 1707 which devastated the town. While the town was rebuilt yet again, Conway’s home was not. Its secrets were left in the earth in Castle Gardens until an archaeological excavation took place in the mid-2000s.
While the major finds of the excavation included the gazebo and perron staircase (now restored), many smaller items of everyday use were also unearthed. One of the items uncovered from that period is a small figurine of a baby. Believed to be made of faience, a glazed non-clay ceramic material, the figurine was uncovered in the castle grounds. Archaeologists on the site estimated that the figure was made in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. It is possible that this figure originated in Holland. Indeed, other Dutch items such as Delft tiles were also uncovered at the site. Dutch faience had enjoyed a popularity boom in the period 1640-1730, and it has been noted that plain white faience figurines were popular decorative items around this time. Further cementing the Dutch influence on the new castle, it was recorded that in 1656 Lord Conway had brought over a Dutch gardener to work on the lavish grounds.
This interesting piece is on display in the museum and forms part of the larger exhibition, Rawdon: An Irish Family Dynasty. This exhibition explores the Rawdon family, and their lasting impact on Ulster and beyond. At the heart of the display are three of the museum’s most recent acquisitions: portraits of Sir George Rawdon (1604-84), his wife Dorothy, and the Countess of Moira, Elizabeth Hastings (1731-1808). The exhibition is free and open to the public until 31 January 2023. Details can be found here: